vince bantu: a multitude of all peoples

There can be no doubt about what is on Vince Bantu’s mind with his book, A Multitude of All Peoples.  It is sitting there, blunt and bald, in the opening two sentences of his Introduction: “Christianity is and always has been a global religion.  For this reason, it is important never to think of Christianity as becoming global” (1).

Any view that even hints at a ‘westernized Christian narrative’ (2), whereby ‘Christianity came into Africa and Asia from Europe’ (2), is to be rejected.

This dilemma of the white Western cultural captivity of the church is perhaps the greatest missiological challenge facing the church today.  Billions of people around the world perceive Christianity as a Western, white religion that is fundamentally at odds with their ethnic and cultural identity.  Regardless of the reality that Scripture proclaims the equal acceptability of all cultural groups (Acts 10:34-35), the historical reality of the Western church’s complicity in white supremacy has cemented this cultural association with the gospel in the minds of much of humanity.  The Western cultural captivity of the church began with the Christianization of Rome under Constantine, and the Persian Christians were the first non-Western Christians to suffer the consequences of this phenomenon (170).

On my very first Langham visit to Pakistan I encountered a man who bore witness to the fact that in becoming a Christian, people considered him no longer to be Pakistani.

It is a common story.  It is a sad story.  It is bad history.

Bantu opens up these issues in a couple of ways, one feeling a bit uphill and the other more downhill.

Uphill

The uphill one is the decision to devote 60 pages to the opening chapter — “The Roots of Western Christian Identity Politics” (9-71).  Tough stuff.  In it he responds to this question at the heart of it all: ‘If the church has been global from the beginning, then why have so many people seen Christianity as a Western, white religion? (9, emphasis mine).

The whole Constantine (so-called) conversion and the formation of a Christian state wasn’t a great start.  We already kinda know that to be true — but the issues go deeper.  The Council of Chalcedon and the schism it created between the majority Roman church and the churches in Africa and Asia led on to this sense that anything in the West was orthodox and anything in the East veered towards heresy, often falling into it.  It was Chalcedon that helped create the perception of a western white man’s religion, as those beyond the West became increasingly marginalised:

With the major ecclesiastical centers of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia now condemned as heretical, the church of the Roman Empire would increasingly come to see itself as the sole heir and guardian of orthodox Christianity.  Non-Western Christian groups were then ignored, oppressed, and colonized by the dominant Roman church until an unprecedented world superpower emerged that dramatically altered the fate of the non-Western Christian world. (48).

Yep, the ‘Arab Muslim Conquest’, two centuries after Chalcedon, is that ‘superpower’… Under this oppressive burden, that precious church in the East ‘began to weaken, providing the impetus for the West to exist as a Christian empire equal to the ascendant Islamic empire to the east’ (63).  And so we have the ’emergence of a new European Christian superpower’ (63) and the Western cultural captivity of the Church was secured for centuries to come.

Downhill

The more downhill part of the book commences with chapter 2, with a succession of stories of the origins of ‘pre-colonial Christianity in the non-Western world’ (72, emphasis mine). ‘Many people today think that Christianity began for people of color only five hundred years ago through (the) colonial enterprise’ (72).  Nope.  It ain’t so.  Here is a story that the person in the pew, on the street and in the history class doesn’t even know exists.  One after the other, Bantu takes the reader with him to Egypt (72-84), Nubia (84-95), Ethiopia (96-108), North Africa (108-118), Syria (119-130), Lebanon (130-137), Arabia (137-147), Armenia (148-156), Georgia (156-164), Persia (165-180), India (180-189), Central Asia (189-202) and China (202-217).

It is a thrilling overseas trip.

As if to prove his point about the perception of Christianity-as-white-and-Western, the stories are filled with names and places that white-and-Western readers will not recgonise.  A point in each story is reached where the same event happens — the Arab Muslim Conquest, changing things forever.  The stories of Armenia and Georgia, back-to-back, are especially rivetting.  Check-out a woman called Nino in the Georgian story.  I was just about to refer to her as El-Nino, such was her impact, but then I saw she became Saint Nino and so I backed off.

Like Armenia, Georgia has been subject to Roman, Persian, Arab, Mongol, Turkish, and Russian rule until its modern independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (157) … and through it all a Christian testimony has been sustained.

The story of a painting in Nubia (95) which suggests the presence of Christian communities further south and west in the Bambara tribal area (contemporary Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal) centuries before colonization had me scrambling across Google for an hour.  Some of the earliest words ever written in the Arabic language were ones proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ (147). Amazing, eh?

Every now and then, Bantu let’s it rip with a paragraph of passion.  I’ve watched/listened to him on YouTube and the Jude 3 Project and he is a fast-talking, intense man (sharing the same alma mater as Barby, Wheaton College!).  He must be a prophetic voice within the American Christian context.  At one point he observes, in passing, how ‘the heretical theology of the dominant culture is not embraced by marginal Christian communities in the modern world’ (140).  Interesting.  Yes, the way beyond the often unnamed heresies in his context (and spreading to mine) — like nationalism, economism and selfism, for starters — is likely to be found on the margins who have not bought into the idolatry.

Vince Bantu letting it rip, on Jude 3 Project (13 minutes)

Nationalism is such an irritant.  While I am not yet convinced that it is so different from patriotism, I can sense there are settings where the latter might be important.  Bantu comes along and articulates the thoughts for which I have been groping:

Christians who are members of socially and politically marginalized communities must unapologetically express pride and solidarity with their cultural community.  While the extremes of ethnocentrism and nationalism have no place for those in Christ, believers must also be wary of the opposite extreme of leaving no room for biblical expressions of cultural pride.  This is especially necessary for Christian cultures that are oppressed and marginalized.  Positive self-images that are nurtured internally are vital components to advancing communities that have been historically and systematically marginalized.  It is imperative for Christians who come from cultures where Christianity is culturally pervasive to give space for believers who experience cultural alienation from the gospel.  Likewise, it is important for subaltern [ie lower status] cultures to resist internalized theological racism that cautions them against embracing their own culture.  These measures are of greater importance than the fragility, defensiveness, or discomfort they may create for the dominant culture (162).

Here’s looking at you, Pakistan and Myanmar (and so many other marginalized Christian communities worldwide) — but also at First Nations peoples like Indigenous Australians and Māori.

If a gospel movement is to flourish among cultures that have been historically marginalized in the name of Christianity, it is of paramount importance for indigenous communities to be empowered to develop contextual theology and worship that glorifies Christ and celebrates communal identity (163).

And this is where Bantu heads with his final Conclusion [NB: I am seriously considering combining the Introduction and Conclusion into some ‘required reading’ —just 18 total pages, but it is gold].  He argues for the ‘missiological primacy’ of:

(a) Contextualized Theology (219-225, ‘the Christian tradition that fails to deeply root itself in local culture … runs the risk of fading away due to the perception of “foreignness”‘, 225);

and

(b) Indigenous Leadership (226-228, ‘Rather than attempting to create indigenous leaders in our own image or bring them to “our table”, outsiders should follow Paul’s example and submit to the wisdom and directives of indigenous leaders in gospel efforts in their communities’, 227).

… on the way to ‘missions as cultural sanctification’ (228).

nice chatting

Paul

PS: Check-out the trailer for Jude 3 Project’s Unspoken documentary, discussing the question “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” — with details on streaming it at https://unspokenmovie.com.

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

3 Comments

  1. dale on August 31, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    Absolutely wonderful stuff Paul, thanks for reading and sharing!

  2. Paul on September 2, 2022 at 3:30 am

    Thanks, Dale — praying that thngs go well over the weekend!

    Paul

  3. Heather on September 4, 2022 at 6:13 pm

    This is really interesting – I knew nothing of any of it.

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